Sunday, 30 September 2012

September 30th - £6 for some chocolate fingers, and a damson compote

Dear Nigel,

Autumn is here, thick and heavy, alternating between those bright and sunny windswept days when the changing leaves glow, and dark, wet and muddy days when venturing out is done under protest. I am waiting for my log store to arrive so i can lay in supplies for the winter. The dark days make us like squirrels tucking things away in the freezer, making jam for buttered crumpets in front of the tele and bottling the last of the summer.

The produce at the Harvest auction showed likewise. There were plenty of jars of homemade lemon curd and pickled onions, jams and chutneys. You could almost picture which villager brought which item. There was a whole swathe of gladioli in vibrant shades, and two onions and a sweetcorn which was slightly less funny when the second one appeared, although one raucous laugh from the back obviously didn't think so.

It was bring-your-own-drinks and a choice of pud. The Pie itself was first class, which rather suprised me, although maybe it shouldn't. Maybe we have all got used to eating and expecting better quality food these days, from pubs, restaurants (naturally), school dinners, hospitals and even village hall get-togethers. The event was a sell-out and a good mix of young and old. It was good to feel part of a community and made welcome.

And then the bidding started in earnest. The vicar (who Dawn French must surely have based her character on in 'The Vicar of Dibley') seemed to be bidding against herself in an urge to up the proceedings, and the profits. Sophie had great fun bidding wildly for a packet of chocolate fingers, which ended up costing me about £6 for the privilege.

Red is everywhere,quickening the heart. The Robin is back perched high on Archie. There are Rose hips in the hedgerows and deep pink sedum blossoms covered in the last bumblebees of  summer; and the giant heads of fading hydrangeas, like ladies in swimming hats, nodding over the paths. I buy chilli plants for the house and a bowl of tiny kir-like damsons to make into compote. The shops are full of fresh Turkish figs and pomegranates to pick at and sprinkle on puddings.(I'm never quite happy with that word 'desert' - pudding sounds just so much better, like something you're going to eat rather than just look at on a trolley.)

You make a Courgette and Lancashire cheese crumble and apologise for its 70's nut-cutlet image. But don't. I make a similar Cauliflower crumble that i love (but have been banned for making it by the kids since leaving Cornwall, where i bought cauliflowers from little tables at field edges for 20p each, and it became our weekly frugal staple).Your crumble is fragrant with flecks of chopped Rosemary and walnut pieces. The toasting of the cheese in the crumble mixture on top is what gives it its satisfying and moreish qualities.

'There is a chill to the house and sweaters all round. Supper is risotto, the first of the season.' If ever there were a single comfort food to welcome you home on a cold, dark night, it is a well-made risotto.You make yours simply today with just onion, rice, stock and Gorgonzola. I realise the dark is so intense here, the light-pollution so completely absent, that unless i remember to put on the house light i am left fumbling my way in the dark with a torch to locate the back door.

Come and join us round the fire for hot chocolate with marshmallows this windy night,


Monday, 17 September 2012

September 16th - Blackberries, Rosehips and a Harvest Supper

Dear Nigel,

After last year's complete failure to find any Blackberries, suddenly this year I'm having no trouble at all. The wonderful wet Summer has done wonders for these little midnight berries and even the wild hedgerow ones are juicy and plump.Such is their enthusiasm that their long spiny tentacles bridge over the little stream and meander through the fence to find us.

Like every child since year dot, mine are transfixed with their bountiful juiciness and that they can be had for free. It is harder persuading a little one to watch and wait until the colour has turned completely black and daily inspections are being made to check on the progress.Scraped arms are a right of passage and distant memories of the taste are as much bound up with the pain of foraging, the stained  purple hands and the smell of musty Autumn heavy in the air.

Autumn has arrived for you, too: 'A fine autumn day has turned to a chill evening where the dry leaves are being blown against the windows, whirling and crackling in sudden gusts.' You opt for comfort food in the guise of  mushroom pappardelle - a pasta dish made with chestnut mushrooms (which taste so much better than the ordinary closed cap cousins), with a 'lovely autumnal flavour...if you let the mushrooms cook until they are nut brown and stickily tender'.It's a very simple dish (pg 283) with plenty of parsley and grated Parmesan added, but tasty. Like you, i also think that 'much modern cooking is so exquisitely contrived that the chunky, rustic-looking dish, inelegant and apparently thrown together, is something of a rare treat.'I thoroughly enjoyed this simple supper dish and its comforting heaviness banished the Autumn chill that had set in.

Against my kitchen window is a fine wild rose bush with jewel-like hips in abundance. I tentatively think about making some rose hip syrup, but change my mind: I will leave them for the birds so we can enjoy their feasting in the depths of winter and a little colour against the blank white canvas of snow.

The village newsletter makes its rounds - not quite on par with the evening standard, but probably more avidly read. Ours is an amalgamation with several other small villages around us, each with their own page. Highlight of this month's calendar is the Harvest Festival and its associated pagan charity auction and a Pea and Pie supper. It's a school night, but opportunities here are few and far between, and the chance to bid £11 for a loaf of bread seem too good to miss. My friend June is making pickles as there are a great many cake bakers in the village, as the Jubilee tea was able to testify.

There has been a great deal of action here in the last few weeks. The tide may have turned now but the balmy Indian Summer weather of the past couple of weeks brought all the tractors and combines out in a flurry to bring in the last of the hay. Little old tractors, modern monster-sized vehicles, and all hands on deck. One balmy evening i set off to walk the dog through the meadows beside our house. Two little pairs of feet too awake to sleep appeared behind me in nightgowns and wellies. We walked on through the last golden rays of sunset watching the haymaking on the other side of the hill. Our friends Jane and Kevin were baling the rows of dried hay. Terry was helping out, and little Liam and Jessie were running along behind a trailer stacked with bales, laughing and calling out. We waved back: A timeless scene of country life, like a richly-oiled Turner.